City Librarian Marcellus Turner told the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission earlier this month that he understands its decision to penalize Seattle Public Libraries for its handling of a 7th Congressional District debate in July, but worries how it will affect SPL’s mission to promote civic engagement in the future.
The complaint against SPL was filed by 7th Congressional District Republican candidate Craig Keller, who took issue with the library’s initial cosponsoring of a candidate forum with Seattle City Club, which selected only three of the nine candidates in the running for outgoing Rep. Jim McDermott’s seat prior to the August primary.
Up until the July 14 debate, SPL had been a cosponsor of the debate, and Turner had been slated to make introductory remarks. SPL staff spent three hours preparing for the debate.
The library pulled its cosponsorship after learning it was likely violating city elections code, which states neither a city elected official nor employee may make an office or facility available for the purpose of assisting a candidate or campaign. A facility can be made available for a candidate or ballot measure, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, but only if all candidates or ballot committees have an equal opportunity to benefit.
The SEEC found that SPL violated the PDC’s declaratory order by posting the event on its calendar and taking staff time to prepare for the debate, but found the library complied with the order by using the same rental terms and conditions when leasing space to Seattle City Club.
Under its settlement agreement with the commission, SPL agreed to pay the city of Seattle $450 for the violation and make changes to its policies and procedures to avoid such errors in the future.
Keller addressed the SEEC on Wednesday, Nov. 2, asking the commission to reject the settlement in order to add language clarifying further that no government space be made available for rent for election matters unless all candidates are included. The damage from the July 14 debate, which only included 43rd District Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, 37th District Sen. Pramila Jayapal and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott; Jayapal and Walkinshaw advanced to the general election.
“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put this back together again,” said Keller, who received 8.2 percent of primary votes.
Independent candidate Leslie Regier, who received 1.2 percent of the primary vote, also requested the SEEC make sure no government agency is allowed to rent space for an elections event that doesn’t include all candidates.
SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett had dismissed the complaint, but the commission overturned that decision, approving the settlement on Nov. 2.
Turner said the SPL board is concerned about the “unintended consequences” the SEEC’s decision could have on the library’s ability to promote civic engagement, adding the library has been invited to join the Washington Debate Coalition, but is currently not accepting the offer. SPL branches are the setting for 10,000 educational events and programs every year, Turner said, and the library wants to be able to connect residents with elected officials that want to speak to or participate in those sessions. SPL also wants to be able to broadcast debates, Turner said, but the SEEC decision has the library concerned about its role moving forward.
“It is thorny,” said SEEC chair Eileen Norton. “A library does serve a very different function than other parts of government.”
There have only been four such violations found by the SEEC in the last 12 years, Barnett said, but those all involved the accused being the benefactor. That includes Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess using his council Twitter account for campaigning back in 2015, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw was fined $150 in 2014 for campaigning for a Seattle parks district during discussion hosted by the mayor’s Office for Senior Citizens. Former mayor Greg Nickels was fined in 2005 for using taxpayer funds to mail a campaign flier.
“This case is unique,” Barnett said, “because the violation did not benefit any of the library personnel.”
Barnett said he will draft an opinion to help guide SPL’s revisions to its policies and programming.